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Islam and British Values

Shaykh Abdalhaqq Bewley

David Cameron recently defined British values as being freedom, tolerance, respect for the rule of law, belief in personal and social responsibility and respect for British institutions. He did this as a direct response to the recent controversy concerning the alleged Islamicisation of certain state schools in Birmingham. He was in effect saying that the schools concerned, which were being openly accused of Islamic extremism, did not hold to these values and were therefore promoting in some way un-British values. The moment I heard his definition I, as a British Muslim, said to myself about the first four things he mentioned, ‘There is no way that four core Islamic values could be more clearly enunciated than this, values that were undoubtedly being passed on to the pupils in the schools concerned, if Islam was actually being in any way truly emphasised during the course of their schooling.’ As for respect for British institutions, it clearly takes some time for people who come to this country to realise what they are and, in any case, some of our institutions, including the august one which Mr Cameron and Mr Gove both belong to, have clearly lost the respect of a great number of our countrymen in recent years. I am absolutely certain, for instance, that the vast majority of Muslims in Britain have the greatest respect for the queen and the institution of the monarchy.

Look, the schools at the heart of this furore have, in every case, an overwhelming majority of Muslim pupils and is it not, therefore, both likely and appropriate that suitable provision would be made for their religious and social needs within their school environment. Muslim children have specific religious and social needs different from those of many other children from non-religious or Christian backgrounds and it is certain that the parents of these children will want to see these needs met as much during school hours as they are at other times. After a certain age Muslims pray five times every day at particular times, we fast during the month of Ramadan, we need to learn passages from the Qur’an in Arabic to fulfill our religious obligations, both girls and boys are required to dress modestly. What is being seen and propagated as Islamic extremism is, in fact, nothing other than the normal observation of those things that are asked of and willingly adhered to by every practising Muslim. In one school a poster in Arabic was pointed to as a sign of Islamic extremism; in that case virtually every Muslim in Britain is an extremist. I doubt that there is a single Muslim home in Britain that does not have some Arabic calligraphy displayed somewhere on one of its walls.

What I have not heard mentioned anywhere is that in every case the schools concerned in this controversy have improved standards dramatically within the last few years, outperforming other schools from similarly deprived areas not only in Birmingham but throughout the country, and this has shown itself clearly in the results they have achieved in national tests and exams. This is undoubtedly partly due to the fact that Muslim parents have become actively supportive of the schools concerned and, as a corollary of this, to something I have mentioned elsewhere: that when someone is made secure in their socio/religious identity, as has been the case in these schools, rather than leading to extremist behaviour of the kind being flagged up, in fact leads to greater academic success and genuine social integration. It is notable that acts of terrorism have only been perpetrated by Muslims with very little education in Islam who were clearly very insecure in their Islamic identity.

The frenzy whipped up over this whole affair, which may very well owe much to the success in recent elections of Nigel Farage and his UKIP colleagues, is just one aspect of an extremely disturbing present trend: what can only be described as a relentless storm of negative, anti-Islamic propaganda being blasted out nonstop by leading British politicians and the British media. No news bulletin goes by without Islam being explicitly or implicitly blamed, often unjustly, for some local or international incident. This has created an atmosphere in which the Muslims of this country genuinely and justifiably feel that they are under attack. It has led to an increasing number of incidents of open Islamophobia, with Muslims being openly insulted and even physically assaulted in the street. How is your fair play, tolerance, and respect for the law, your vaunted British values, being displayed by these thuggish xenophobes, Mr Cameron? And while the perpetrator of the horrific killing last week of a Muslim student at Essex University has yet to be brought to justice, there is no doubt in my mind that recent pronouncements by leading politicians and media outlets have created an atmosphere in which Muslims are now seen as legitimate targets by deranged people looking for someone on which to vent their demented rage.

The truth is that, as I said at the beginning, the Muslims of Britain are precisely the people who in fact represent, probably better than many other parts of the British population, the very values Mr Cameron put forward: those values he considers quintessentially British. Implicit in his words is the unspoken premise that the British values he speaks of hark back to a time before the great waves of immigration of the last decades of the twentieth century changed the demographic landscape of Britain beyond return into its present multi-ethnic, multi religious make-up. There is no doubt that the people of that time would have viewed many of the social changes of this time with extreme consternation and, often, considerable repugnance. There is also no doubt that the values held by British Muslims have far more in common with those held by past generations of our countrymen than those held by many British citizens today. What has happened is that, like it or not, Islam has become firmly rooted in this land and is now a permanent, integral feature of the British landscape. The Muslims of Britain are in every sense British and they certainly have strong and upright values. How can these values possibly be, in any way, anything other than British values?